Will the Smart Machine Age Make Today’s Sales Skills Obsolete?

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In 2015, nearly four million babies were born in the United States.  Today they are toddlers, and many will be asked what they want to be when they grow up. Expect hesitation. The question will not be as easy to answer as it was for my generation. By the time these kids hit twenty, many of the jobs their parents and relatives performed will have vanished.

According to author Edward Hess, professor at UVa’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, about half of all current US jobs will be displaced by 2040. His recent book, Humility is the New Smart, cites a 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne which examines the impact information technology will have on labor and employment. Frey and Osborne estimate that as many as 80 million US workers will be directly affected during this upheaval.

People may disagree with these dire predictions, but it’s hard to deny the profound influence that the Smart Machine Age (SMA) will have on how people will work, and on how many will be working. Nascent developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, and driverless vehicles show great promise. But for society and the labor market, not every outcome will be benign.

If half of today’s jobs will be displaced, which ones will endure? That’s hard to say, but right now, if a machine or algorithm does what you do, it’s time to dust off your resume, and pray that the software that judges it will respond favorably. There’s more displacement coming. In an article, Automation and Anxiety: Will Smarter Machines Cause Mass Unemployment?, The Economist magazine offers a glimpse:



“. . . most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support (such as receptionists and security guards) ‘are likely to be substituted by computer capital’, and that many workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants) also faced a high risk of computerisation.”

In the SMA, jobs that are easily substituted by computer capital won’t be highly paid, and there won’t be much need for workers to do them, either. Yet, there’s hope. Smart machines and AI remain persistently cruddy at performing a myriad of valuable skills. Hess believes that the ones that will endure “will require high-level thinking, creativity, and high emotional intelligence. The consensus view is that humans will be needed to perform those skills that either complement technology, or constitute what machines can’t yet do well, and that list includes critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration.”

Given Hess’s prediction, sales professionals can be forgiven for feeling a tad smug.  After all, no profession better exemplifies this rare combination of abilities. At least that’s the message we repeat to ourselves. Such “killer skills” are consistently mentioned whenever a salesperson is honored, recognized, or rewarded for high revenue production. But before anyone gets bullish and puts a deposit on a designer surfboard or a Ferrari GTC4Lusso, a sobering thought: the SMA has already nibbled away low-level jobs in sales and retail. Ominously, technology has a pattern of progressing from nibbling to gnawing, before becoming a full-on feeding frenzy. Temptation confronts senior executives every day. You can’t find a CFO on the planet who is unaware of the ratio of Sales, General, and Administrative costs to overall revenue at his or her company. And the number is seldom “good enough.”

Sales survivors who believe their skills will be coveted into perpetuity might want to reassess their hubris.  The “essential” skills that portend success today won’t be especially helpful in the SMA. In fact, for a variety of reasons, some will become liabilities. First, the nature of work itself will change. Traditional employees will become outsourced contractors. Goal-directed teams will rapidly coalesce and evaporate just as quickly. Decision processes will become more opaque. These developments fundamentally change how goods and services will be sold. It doesn’t matter whether the product is industrial pumps or property management services. Second, strategic success – and its measurements – will undergo massive change. It won’t be expressed simply in terms of revenue. Consequently, sales enablement will become much different.

The New Mental Model. Success in the Smart Machine Age favors companies that adopt what Hess calls a “new mental model.” Today’s sales organizations champion some skills that will be valued in the SMA – but others that are currently popular will get in the way.

1. Legacy model: individuals win

    SMA: teams win

For many decades, sales forces have been designed, staffed, and managed under a model where reps are “individual contributors.” The concept permeates everything from culture to process to compensation to hiring and professional development. Today, individual quota achievement as the key metric of job success. In the team-oriented SMA, that model creates substantial risks.

2. Legacy model: play cards close to the chest

    SMA: transparency

While Hess is referring to the organizational tactic of hoarding information, sales operations have long engaged in this practice. When it comes to taking responsibility for activities on the customer “front lines”, corporate boards and outside departments are reluctant to get involved. “What happens in Sales stays in Sales!” In the SMA, revenue generation will become a key part of every department in the company – from HR to Legal to IT – as well as Marketing and Sales.

3. Legacy model: Highest-ranking person can trump

    SMA: Best idea or argument wins

The person who coined the aphorism, “[Stuff] flows downhill,” probably worked in Sales as a “direct report.” In the SMA, titles, job description, and tenure won’t matter as much as the quality of an idea.

4. Legacy model: Listening to confirm

    SMA: Listening to learn

Today’s sales rep listens for confirmation. Sure, sales pundits talk a good game about why salespeople need to “shut up and listen,” and how “telling is not selling.” But today’s sales managers and coaches still goad reps to focus on listening for “trigger events” and “buying signals.” Today, listening to learn without having a specific sales goal in mind is a luxury. In the SMA, it will be a necessity.



5. Legacy model: Telling

    SMA: Asking questions

A bright spot for the sales profession’s evolution into the SMA. Asking questions to expose the truth has been an enduring part of sales culture.

6. Legacy model: Knowing

    SMA: Being good at not knowing

This element represents prominent awkwardness for sales professionals. Today’s sales culture insists that salespeople possess business knowledge, industry knowledge, competitive knowledge, best-practice knowledge, and product knowledge, not to mention common sense and street smarts.  “Know everything you can about your customers!” For reps, admitting a knowledge gap isn’t a career-enhancing move. Hess believes this unattainable interpretation of knowledge is becoming obsolete. “In the SMA, Old Smart will become the new ‘stupid.’ . . . NewSmart is a new definition of human smart that reflects the increasing cognitive capabilities of smart machines and is measured not by quantity – how much you know – but by the quality of your thinking, learning, and emotionally engaging with others. NewSmart is not about always being right, being perfect, and knowing more than others.”

7. Legacy model: IQ

    SMA: IQ and EQ

Another bright spot! Building rapport has long been considered an essential skill for top producers.

8. Legacy model: Mistakes are always bad

     SMA: Mistakes are learning opportunities

Sales organizations aren’t forgiving about mistakes, which range from screwing up a demo to failing to get an appointment with a C-Level executive to losing a deal. That culture makes them very weak on learning. “Just move on . . .” A terse, but all-too-common synthesis following a failed revenue opportunity. In the SMA, successful companies will be more open to admitting mistakes, and using knowledge to prevent them in the future.

9. Legacy model: Compete

     SMA: Collaborate

It’s nearly universal in sales organizations for reps to be indoctrinated with competitive spirit. And not just us against rivals, but you against each other.  In almost every organization, salespeople are ranked against their peers. There are monetary bonuses and other perks provided to “top revenue producers.” Reps are lauded when their individual accomplishments merit recognition – but rarely appreciated for leadership, let alone encouraged to lead. Evidence? A verbatim job description from a website that typified many I examined: “This is an individual contributor position that will not coordinate the activities of others.” In the SMA, sales teams will operate as teams, and not just be referred to that way.

10. Legacy model: Self-promote

       SMA: Self-reflect



“Customers buy from people – not companies!”  Today, removing self-promotion from selling compares to the result when helium is removed from a “happy birthday” balloon. The message is still communicated, but not nearly as well. How will sales professionals adjust to the introspection needed in the SMA? I’m not sure. Maybe a good start would be to subdue the ethos that everything a rep does centers on him or her making quota.

Does the advent of the SMA mean that hiring executives need to discover skills in sales candidates that were previously not considered predictive of success? Emphatically yes, if they believe that buyers and sellers will engage differently, and that the definition of success will extend beyond an individual’s percent-of-goal to include outcomes not previously measured or rewarded.

In 2037, a sizable portion of the four million babies born in 2015 will be newly-minted college graduates – or at least the product of what we now call post-secondary education.  As we progress further into the SMA, will most companies rely on uniquely human skills to generate revenue? Will AI become smart enough to substantially cannibalize the roles of legacy sales hunters and individual contributors? Will “pure” sales roles even exist?  Fun to ruminate on, but hard to predict. As we enter the SMA, the only certainty is that the most valued job skills – the ones likely to provide health, happiness, and prosperity – won’t be the same as today.

Additional resource: for related articles about Professor Hess’s May 16, 2017 lecture at the Darden Innovation Summit, please click here.

1 COMMENT

  1. The website Visual Capitalist has taken the Frey and Osborne forecast I mentioned in my article and applied them to 2016 US Bureau of Labor Statistics information. This link provides a bar chart that reveals which job categories will be affected, as well as the magnitude: http://www.visualcapitalist.com/visualizing-jobs-lost-automation/

    “Retail Salesperson” – the most common job category, has a “90% chance of being automated

    “Sales representatives – Wholesale and Manufacturing” are estimated to retain about 25% of their current employment levels.

    “Customer Service Representatives” will see their current employment levels decrease by about 50%

    and “Miscellaneous Sales Representatives – Services” will decrease by nearly 50%

    One point Visual Capitalist made that I didn’t mention in my article: with fewer employees to manage, there won’t be as much need for managers, either. Need for “First line supervisors of sales workers” will decline by about 20%.

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